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Should Schools Be Allowed To Restrict Free Speech?

As part of the AWOL magazine, our organization went on a fun little Sunday field trip down to the Newseum, a museum dedicated solely to the evolution and progress of news. Now in an era where questions are raised about "Fake News" and whether or not hate speech should be restricted, an interesting question was posed on one of the Newseum walls. The Newseum, an ever changing museum just like the topic it displays, has polls around the exhibits for people to vote a blanket yes or no in relation to the exhibit it is near. For example, one of the exhibits about the first amendment, had was a section dedicated solely to education and the freedom of speech.

After reading a few of the exhibits examples where schools took disciplinary action against students in regards to their freedom of speech, I was intrigued. How could a nation that deems itself full of pride surrounding it's amendments just restrict young adults, albeit minors, of their fundamental rights? Well here's the answer: legally, they can. In the 1988 Supreme Court Case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the issue was regarding Student Journalism and the First Amendment. Bottom Line? Schools Can Censor Student Newspapers.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeir

Cathy Kuhlmeier, Leslie Smart, and Leanne Tippett, juniors at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri, helped write and edit the school paper, the Spectrum, as part of a journalism class. An issue of the paper was to include articles about the impact of divorce on students and teen pregnancy. The school's principal refused to publish the two stories, saying they were too sensitive for younger students and contained too many personal details. The girls went to court claiming their First Amendment right to freedom of expression had been violated. The Supreme Court ruled against the girls. A school newspaper isn't a public forum in which anyone can voice an opinion, the Court said, but rather a supervised learning experience for students interested in journalism. "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities," the Court said, "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate [educational] concerns." Schools may censor newspapers and restrict other forms of student expression, including theatrical productions, yearbooks, creative writing assignments, and campaign and graduation speeches. But the Court's ruling in Hazelwood encourages schools to look closely at a student activity before imposing any restrictions and to balance the goal of maintaining high standards for student speech with students' right to free expression.

This question of how free public schools are within the bounds of the Constitution as well as how/if minors are even really protected under the Constitution is part of an interpretive matter. Therefore a similar case about self-expression came about in 1969. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District was also about Freedom of Speech in schools and resulted in the decision that students do have the right to express themselves - up to a point.

Tinker v. Des Moins Independent School District

In December 1965, John and Mary Beth Tinker and their friend Chris Eckhardt wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the war in Vietnam. School officials told them to remove the armbands, and when they refused, they were suspended (John, 15, from North High; Mary Beth, 13, from Warren Harding Junior High; and Chris, 16, from Roosevelt High). With their parents, they sued the school district, claiming a violation of their First Amendment right of freedom of speech. The Supreme Court sided with the students. Students and teachers don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," the Court said.The Court did not, however, grant students an unlimited right to self-expression. It said First Amendment guarantees must be balanced against a school's need to keep order: As long as an act of expression doesn't disrupt classwork or school activities or invade the rights of others, it's acceptable. Regarding the students in this case, "their deviation consisted only in wearing on their sleeve a band of black cloth," the Court said. "They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder."ImpactIn 1986, applying the "disruption test" from the Tinker case, the Supreme Court upheld the suspension of Matthew Fraser, a 17-year-old senior at Bethel High School in Tacoma, Washington, who gave a school speech containing sexual innuendos (Bethel School District v. Fraser). The Court said "it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse."Lower courts have relied on Tinker in rulings on school attire, allowing nose rings and dyed hair, for example, but disallowing a T-shirt displaying a Confederate flag.In June, the Supreme Court weighed in on another student expression case, Frederick v. Morse, ruling that schools can limit student speech that seems to advocate illegal drug use. The case concerned Joseph Frederick, an 18-year-old senior at Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska, who was suspended in 2002 for holding a banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while standing across the street from the school during the Olympic torch relay.

So should schools be allowed to restrict free speech? I personally don't think they should even though they legally are allowed to.

Following the train of thought that "just because you can does not mean you should".